Lurie continually finds promise in things, but that promise is often dashed against the rocks by the time her poem is done. She sometimes walks through this pattern with steps so tricky you barely notice, such as the way she insists on dividing the word “cannot” into two words, as if God is teasing her, making something good seem possible for only the split second space of a single letter, then snatching away that possibility and replacing it with inevitable disappointment.
She also runs through this pattern in more obvious ways. One example is her beautiful, heartbreaking poem “Kabul” in which she speaks with the voice of an oppressed Afghani girl, complete with bloodstained burkha, tyrannical male relatives and not an ounce of hope.
This particular poem is violent and disturbing, but some of the oppressiveness of the poem is delivered with a softer touch. In one small but telling moment, Lurie writes: “Tonight Father had guests. I heard them say / They liked the bread. / I baked it / While Mother took a nap. / She did not say / I baked it. She turned her back to me.” This might seem like a trivial episode, but in the context of the whole poem, it's a powerful reminder that when women are truly oppressed, they often can't even depend on each other for support.
Sometimes Lurie can be kind of funny, but her humor is of an admittedly grim and dark variety. In this same poem, for example, she addresses the irony of requiring young Muslim women to adopt a brand of Islam that's overtly hostile toward women. “… I am a woman / and I do not believe in the paradise Father speaks about / While he beats me with his stick.”
Of course, reading about depressing things isn't necessarily depressing. That's why we love those Mississippi Delta blues. Lurie's best poems are like the blues, they balance a black mood against the sheer beauty of carefully composed language.
Consider “Island Sonnet,” a poem about a broken relationship that's damaged in a way the narrator finds impossible to explain in words. Her last line, in which she reveals that “the ocean is a throat and the waves the things I long to say,” is an example of the simple lyricism that is this book's greatest strength.
Another example of the stripped beauty created by Lurie at her best is found in the book's closing poem, “My Mother, 79.” Much of this volume concerns itself with the difficulty of relationships between mothers and daughters, especially when such relationships involve two people relatively advanced in years. In a previous poem, Lurie explores the tortured emotions of a mother whose daughter has committed suicide. In another, Lurie describes a scene in which a daughter attempts to console her disturbed mom without success.
In this final poem, Lurie seems to reach some point of reconciliation, if not serenity. In three simple lines, she creates a vivid portrait of old age: “my mother is / the disappearing field / she walks across.”
Lurie lives in Corrales. She was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her next book, Letter from the Lawn, will be published later this year.
Don't be tricked by the title. You should read this book.